Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition

Citation:

Kloppenberg JT. Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition. Princeton University Press; 2010.

Abstract:

Barack Obama puzzles observers. Derided by the Right as dangerous and by the Left as spineless, Obama does not fit contemporary partisan categories. Instead, his writings and speeches reflect a principled aversion to absolutes that derives from sustained engagement with American democratic thought. Reading Obama traces the origins of his ideas and establishes him as the most penetrating political thinker elected to the presidency in the past century. James T. Kloppenberg demonstrates the influences that have shaped Obama's distinctive worldview, including Nietzsche and Niebuhr, Ellison and Rawls, and recent theorists engaged in debates about feminism, critical race theory, and cultural norms. Examining Obama's views on the Constitution, slavery and the Civil War, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement, Kloppenberg shows Obama's sophisticated understanding of American history. Obama's interest in compromise, reasoned public debate, and the patient nurturing of civility is a sign of strength, not weakness, Kloppenberg argues. He locates its roots in Madison, Lincoln, and especially in the philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, which nourished generations of American progressives, black and white, female and male, through much of the twentieth century, albeit with mixed results. Reading Obama reveals the sources of Obama's commitment to democratic deliberation: the books he has read, the visionaries who have inspired him, the social movements and personal struggles that have shaped his thinking. Kloppenberg shows that Obama's positions on social justice, religion, race, family, and America's role in the world do not stem from a desire to please everyone but from deeply rooted--although currently unfashionable--convictions about how a democracy must deal with difference and conflict.

Notes:

Reviews: "In Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition, James Kloppenberg, one of America's foremost intellectual historians, persuasively argues that this transition in Rawls's work reflects a broader shift in American philosophy away from appeal to general principles, valid at all times and in all places, toward a reliance on local, historically particular values and ideals. Kloppenberg's own endeavor, in surveying the work in political and legal theory that seems to have shaped President Obama's thinking, is to argue for the coherence, the Americanness, and the plausibility of Obama's approach to politics and to the Constitution."--Kwame Anthony Appiah, New York Review of Books "In short, Mr. Kloppenberg's brief intellectual biography of Mr. Obama provides an excellent portrait of the shining self-image of the progressive intellectual."--Peter Berkowitz, Wall Street Journal "One of Kloppenberg's most important claims is that Obama embodies the spirit of pragmatism--not the colloquial pragmatism that is more or less the same thing as practicality, but the philosophical pragmatism that emerged largely from William James and John Dewey and continued to flourish through the work of Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and others. Kloppenberg provides an excellent summary of the pragmatic tradition--a tradition rooted in the belief that there are no eternal truths, that all ideas and convictions must meet the test of usefulness. . . Kloppenberg is best when he analyzes Obama's own writing--Dreams from My Father, The Audacity of Hope, and some of his memorable speeches. He gives an excellent analysis of Obama's views of Lincoln and of the ways in which he has come to terms with race."--Alan Brinkley, Democracy

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